Tainted Fish Targeted Again in Senate Bill
South of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, schools of white croaker scavenge the ocean bottom for food. Scientists say that much of what they eat, including bottom-dwelling clams and worms, is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals dumped over the years from nearby sewage outfalls.
Since 1985, the state Department of Health Services has been warning recreational fishermen not to eat croaker caught in the area. But commercial fishermen still operate there, and some of that local white croaker, known also as kingfish or tom cod, is being netted and sold to the public.
For the second time in two years, state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) is attempting to put white croaker off limits. Last year, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill Rosenthal introduced that would have banned commercial fishing and sportfishing for croaker off the peninsula and in much of San Pedro Bay.
This year’s bill is given a good chance of escaping a veto because it would have little impact on sportfishing operators, a group that opposed the earlier bill and lobbied Deukmejian to veto it.
The new bill limits the ban on sportfishing operators and commercial fishing to a smaller area, the state waters from Point Fermin to Point Vicente. Environmental scientists, arguing that contaminated white croaker range well outside the closure zone, do not hide their disappointment.
“Why bother?” said Mark Gold, staff biologist for Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica environmental group. “It’s an arbitrary cutoff. I hate to see any bill passed that compromises public health considerations.”
Rosenthal acknowledges that he would prefer a larger closure zone but says his immediate goal is to get some form of white croaker ban on the books.
“When this is in law, we’ll have the camel’s nose under the tent and I may pursue it further,” Rosenthal said. “You sometimes can’t get 100% safety, but if you can eliminate an area where you know there is contamination, you’re moving in the right direction.”
Rosenthal’s bill is aimed at curtailing the commercial harvest of white croaker near the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts’ sewage outfalls, which pump effluent from the Carson treatment plant into the ocean south of White Point.
The sea bottom near the outfalls is contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT pesticide sent through the sewage system from the 1950s through the early ‘70s. Although the amount of PCBs dumped is not known, it is estimated that more than 200 tons of DDT are embedded in the sediment off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Of the fish caught and eaten locally, white croaker have drawn the most concern because they feed off worms, clams and other marine bottom-dwellers found in the sediment near sewage outfalls.
“I call them the garbage cans of the sea,” said Jeffery Cross, a marine biologist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a marine research agency in Long Beach. “They eat anything. They eat organisms that are in contact with the contaminants, and the contaminants are passed on to them.”
Studies of white croaker taken off the peninsula bear out Cross’ analysis.
In 1988, the county sanitation districts analyzed 10 white croaker caught near the outfalls. All 10 showed DDT concentrations in excess of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory limit of 5 parts per million, and two exceeded the agency’s 2 parts-per-million PCB limit. DDT in one fish registered 100 parts per million and more than 40 parts per million in two others.
The readings are more striking when considered in light of the fact that state health officials believe that the federal limits for DDT and PCBs are not stringent enough.
“The 5 parts per million and 2 parts per million would appear to give you an excessive risk given normal fish consumption,” said Gerald Pollock, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health Services. Those limits are based on nationwide fish consumption levels, which are lower than California consumption rates, Pollock said.
Pollock’s department is putting the finishing touches on several studies of toxins in local fish. Although the agency has not yet released the results, Pollock says they show elevated levels of contamination in white croaker, particularly from DDT.
“Unless they can move that DDT I don’t think there is a chance the problem will improve in our lifetime,” Pollock said. “The bottom line is that the stuff does not break down. It is sitting there as a reservoir. . . . It is not going to go away.”
For several years, the state Department of Fish and Game has included in its license regulations a warning against eating white croaker caught in Santa Monica Bay, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and in the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor area. Warnings have also been posted at fishing spots along the coast.
In trying to restrict the commercial harvesting of white croaker, Rosenthal says he hopes to protect retail customers who, unlike recreational anglers, may not know that the fish can be harmful.
“If you fish off a pier, there’s a sign saying the fish is not fit for eating, and if you’re out on a boat your licensing manual says it’s not fit,” Rosenthal said. “But if the fish (is) caught commercially in a contaminated area, it goes to market and there is no indication to anybody that the fish might not be edible.”
Although the Legislature endorsed this argument last year by passing Rosenthal’s bill, Deukmejian did not.
The legislation banned commercial fishing and commercial sportfishing for white croaker in the three-mile band of state waters off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and much of San Pedro Bay.
The veto came after William Nott of Long Beach, founder of the Sportfishing Assn. of California and a longtime political supporter of Deukmejian, lobbied the governor in opposition to the bill.
Nott acknowledges that he wrote Deukmejian because the proposed closure area included two fishing barges operated in the San Pedro Bay area by members of the sportfishing association.
“We’ve got two fishing barges, and a great deal of their catch is white croaker,” Nott said, asserting that the state has never demonstrated that white croaker caught on fishing barges in that area present an undue health risk. “So we recommended to the governor that he veto the bill, and he did veto.”
In his veto message, Deukmejian called the bill too broad. He said he could support a ban on commercial fishing for white croaker that is sold in markets, but that sportfishing customers should not be included.
This year’s white croaker bill covers commercial sportfishing operations, but the area embraced by the ban does not include San Pedro Bay.
So far, the prospects appear bright for this year’s bill, which cleared the Senate’s Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee by a unanimous vote March 27 and is now before the Appropriations Committee.
Both Nott, who has retired from the sportfishing association, and his successor, Robert Fletcher, say they will not oppose the legislation.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns., an umbrella group of commercial fishing organizations, says it is actively supporting the bill. Federation Director Zeke Grader said the measure is in the interest of his members, even though it could cause problems for some.
“Unfortunately, the desire is to shut down fishermen rather than address pollution. Still, we’re better off putting those fish off limits,” Grader said. “People need to be assured they can go to the fish market and take home something that’s safe to eat.”
The county Sanitation Districts also supports restrictions on white croaker fishing.
Deukmejian’s office has yet to take a position on Rosenthal’s bill.
Even if the the white croaker bill becomes law, there is debate about whether it would adequately safeguard consumers of the fish. Several biologists interviewed say white croaker caught in San Pedro Bay east of the proposed closure area would likely belong to the same fish populations that feed in contaminated areas.
“It would be reasonable to assume that a fish like that could move a few miles in either direction,” said Steve Crooke, a marine biologist with the state Fish and Game Department’s Long Beach office. “Based on my observation, they do move around a mile or two.”
But Rosenthal said the best studies of white croaker so far are based on fish samples taken near the sewage outfalls. Prohibiting white croaker fishing elsewhere will likely have to wait until completion of reports being prepared by the Department of Health Services, he said.
“If their studies come out soon and show problems elsewhere, I could see myself expanding the scope of my bill,” he said.